In this thing we call life, putting ourselves out there in any capacity can be terrifying. Whether it’s public speaking at work, blogging, opening up to someone in your life, starting a new business or trying to converse in a foreign language, sometimes it’s easier to not try at all. But that’s the problem. I’m focusing on speaking another language in this post. I’m a huge proponent of forcing ourselves to push past our fears.
Let me explain…
Getting over your fear of speaking and why you just have to do it
Uh oh, it’s time to fess up. I’m using myself as an example here because I should have taken my own advice long ago. But as they say, better late than never, right?
I’m admitting to you that I’ve done all of these things over the course of my journey learning French:
- Didn’t speak up in class and would wait for another student to answer even if I knew the correct answer.
- Had my native speaker spouse Tom do the talking for me in high-pressure situations.
- Had him look over emails in French before I hit send.
- Avoid people so I wouldn’t have to converse in French.
- I’d wait until Tom got home to take care of something for me so I wouldn’t have to face it myself.
- Would go somewhere in person to talk face to face instead of calling them on the phone.
The list of taking the easy way out goes on…
And this was baffling to me at first because I’m not a shy, lazy person. I can be reserved and more observant than super outgoing and loud, but I’m not shy. At least I wasn’t in English anyway.
After starting to learn French and eventually moving to France, I’ve noticed that I’m a little different in French. Some of the reasons have to do with the fact that French is a different language and it’ll never come out as effortlessly as English, but the language itself isn’t the only reason.
Maybe the biggest reason is sheer fear.
Fear? What was I scared of?
A whole host of things including not being understood by someone else or for me not understanding the reply. Maybe I was scared of being noticed for being different. Or of being teased or mocked because of my accent. I was scared of making mistakes.
Maybe I was most scared of not being perfect.
No one wants to feel embarrassed or sheepish. We don’t get a kick out of making fools out of ourselves. We want to be liked and respected and that’s hard enough in your native tongue let alone your second language.
So I thought about my reasoning and why I was afraid. I asked myself if I had ever mocked or ridiculed any non-native speaker of English trying to do their best to communicate and the answer was no. Why not? Because I know they’re doing the best they can. And because I’ve been on the other side and know what it’s like.
Do non-native speakers’ written or spoken errors hinder conversation? Not usually. Their mistakes kind of enhance their personality and are endearing. I have so much respect for people who put themselves out there and try. I needed to be one of them.
Will I be fluent after living in France for a year? >>
So back to my list above.
One thing that is a constant in all of the bulleted points above is that I had the luxury of choice in all of those situations.
I chose not to speak up because I didn’t have to — someone else was there. I chose to wait and have my French husband help so I’d be sure my work would be free of errors. I’d choose to let someone else do the hard parts and that made me so angry because I’m not the type of person to back down from a challenge.
Maybe you have a choice as well because the other person speaks English. Because you’re only in the country for a quick vacation.
But what about when you don’t have the luxury of choice?
What if you’re on your own in that foreign language with no support system? What if you absolutely need to use that language to communicate in the moment?
Well, when you don’t have any other option, you just do it.
If it’s for work, it could be the difference between having a job and clients and not. The difference between making yourself immediately understood or not. The difference between making a friend or not.
Let me tell you a story.
I used to work with someone whose English was far from perfect. She was somewhat advanced and understood everything for the most part, but I could tell she hadn’t been in the USA for long. But she was so confident — and had to be because no one spoke her native language.
She had no problem calling someone on the phone and never got flustered when she was asked to repeat herself, which was frequent. She often wrote business emails full of errors. But guess what, her lack of perfection didn’t stop her from getting the job done.
I never once thought less of her. I never saw her struggle, and most importantly, I never once saw her give up.
Looking back now, I admire her even more for having the courage to show the world her flaws.
My advice to anyone still holding back out of fear — or whatever your reason may be — is to GET OVER IT. It’s good general life advice but especially useful when you’re hesitating in your second language. I took my own advice (later than I should have), though. If you go for it and anyone treats you as “less than,” they aren’t worth your time anyway and it’s better to find that out sooner than later.
Take a few days or a few weeks to build up your confidence and psyche yourself up and then pretend you don’t have the luxury to wait for someone else to take the first step. Think about how you’d act if you didn’t have any other choice but to speak. You’ll make mistakes, embarrass yourself, have moments when you aren’t understood or don’t understand what’s being said to you. It’s normal, and quite frankly, necessary for progress.
Language doesn’t have to be perfect and is often messy and imperfect. That’s part of the charm of learning. The struggle makes me appreciate my little triumphs even more. With each passing day, it gets easier and easier. Before you know it, you’ll wonder why you even hesitated to begin with.
Just go for it!
(and then check out this piece on why comprehension needs to be your focus when it comes to language learning)
***I highly recommend Lingoda for language learning. Check out my post on Lingoda here!***
Taste of France says
Good points. I also have my native-French-speaking husband go over emails. He also deals with all things automotive (double whammy–being a woman AND having an English accent). When we go to a vide-grenier, I have him ask about things because I don’t want to get the English-speaker price. On the other hand, I’ve done work in French and it goes just fine. In fact, work can be easier because it’s among peers.
Yup, always best to have the native speaker there as backup. Even in English car vocab can be confusing. I have to say I learned radiator hose in French when ours blew 8 hours from home last year but if you asked me what it does exactly, I couldn’t even tell you in English!
I have a desire to speak French and a thick skin so I just go for it. I have been visiting France since the 70’s and in all that time nobody has laughed at me (to my face anyway) when I have given them ample reason to! Last year I got grossière and grosesse mixed up…whoops!
Taste of France says
Once I asked a taxi driver in Paris to take me to the Guerre du Nord instead of the Gare du Nord. He whipped his head around so hard I thought he would have whiplash, decided I was no threat, and took me where I wanted to go, without muttering a correction or anything at all. Some hours/days later I realized my mistake.
That’s the attitude! And unless something is really funny and they are laughing at the humor of the error, I don’t think anyone would intentionally be mean and laugh in your face at your expense. Sometimes our mistakes really are comical.
Thanks so much for the reminder. Ibam going to Italy for six months with the goal of becoming fluent. It is so easy to hide… But I won’t get better that way!
Have a wonderful time. You’ll do great!
Great post and perfect timing! Now you’ve given me the courage to call SFR tomorrow about my phone bill haha. My boyfriend offered to do it for me, but my French is good enough now that I don’t have a good excuse to not do it myself.
However, I would like to say that I had a bad experience speaking French on the phone earlier this year which has marked me forever. I had to call my prefecture. Someone finally picked up the phone after more than 20 calls (because of course an answering machine or timely email response is out of the question when dealing with french bureaucracy) and she was so rude to me when I tried to ask her which document she was talking about. Instead of explaining what the document was, she just repeated the name of it twice, gave up, and asked if there was someone else who could translate for me. I said no, I’m alone right now. She told me that I shouldn’t call if I can’t understand and I need to find someone to translate for me! She was so mean! I just started crying on the phone and said ok, my boyfriend will call you back later T_T
It really discouraged me and made me scared to speak French to strangers, especially on the phone. When it comes to dealing with the prefecture I still try to push it all on my boyfriend, but now I’m starting to be pretty comfortable speaking French to everybody else!
Yup, we all have to start somewhere and the best way to do that, is to just jump in. It’s scary at first and I’ve looked like an idiot a bunch of times but it gets easier.
I’m so sorry about your bad experience on the phone. Most of the time they’re super busy with no patience so being rude seems par for the course. At least you tried! Try not to let it discourage you too much.
I find the best way to get over my fear of speaking to people is to have a few drinks first but then I may come over as a silly drunk so not a good thing to do
Yes probably best to not go past one drink, two max!
Catherine Berry (But you are in France, Madame) says
You do need to have a thick skin and keep trying in order to be able to jump the administrative hurdles and yes, the telephone is a lot harder. Nonetheless, I understand those who, in the absence of a French partner, socialise in their own language.
Yup, we all have different comfort levels and sometimes it shifts depending on the day or the urgency of the situation. I have so much respect for people who move to France either alone or with a non-French partner. It’s frustrating enough even when you do have someone to help out that I couldn’t imagine the frustration of not having a native partner to talk about your language woes. I, for one, don’t think I’d still be here!
I always really envy those people who aren’t embarrassed to speak their foreign language – the only time I ever really speak in French is when I am drunk!
Awww, I know what you mean. Everything flows more naturally as the wine keeps on flowing out of the bottle 😉
I sometimes hate speaking french around my husbands family lol, I except for his parents I ppl stare and me and it can be overwhelming sometimes lol
Yeah if someone is eying me or is a little too intent on what I’m saying, I lose my train of thought. Kids, for example. I know that most of the time they’re extra curious because they’ve never encountered someone like me before but it can be unnerving!
I know it doesn’t fit in perfectly (neither with the post nor with the blog), because I know you’re an American expat in France and not the other way round, but I still had to think about your blog when I saw this and it generally made me smile: http://www.topito.com/top-illustrations-vie-expat-camembert-foie-gras-vin
As for most of the French people who I’ve met abroad, these illustrations are rather accurate 😀 so I thought maybe you might enjoy it too!
As for the post, you’re right, you simply have to get out there and try. And once you’re past that point, everything gets much easier, but it costs quite an effort in the beginning. I mostly feel embarrassed speaking French in front of my French friends with whom I normally speak English, but with their parents or other people it’s usually alright.
Thanks so much for sending along the link, Tina. I’ll be sure to check it out! And anything expat-related is totally OK to send. I love all of it!